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Travels in Massachusetts

Thursday, July 30, 2015

My first task on coming to Cambridge is to visit Houghton Mifflin Harcourt to meet with my editor and the new book’s designer about proofing the color of the book’s 500+ paintings. I thoroughly enjoy meeting with Lisa and Martha, and leave HMH with an armload of proofs to take home and pore over. I have the originals at home, so it’s me who will be doing the proofing. Yikes. I hope I can deliver as good a result as the pro's at Houghton. Well, I know my colors, and I have the originals right here, so I should get close.

I tromp through Harvard Yard carrying my proofs and come out on the plaza by the Science Center. Since I was in school here, Harvard has repaved the large dark asphalt plaza with white granite, which has proven to be a perfectly horrid choice. When the sun’s out, the granite reflects it upward,  to blinding effect. So anyone who wants to linger there has to be under a shelter, tent, or umbrella lest they be simultaneously blinded and roasted alive. I think it's the kind of thing you don't think about until it's all installed and you go, "Hey. I can't stand being out here."

Under some makeshift tents, I am delighted to find a farmer’s market in full swing. I drool over fresh-picked produce and wish I could buy it all. I can hardly believe my eyes. A farmer's market. In Cambridge. At Harvard.

Man, those are gorgeous eggplants.

Ohh Massachusetts blueberries. Wow. It's all I can do not to buy them, but I am on foot, heavily laden with color proofs.

Earlier in the day, I have delivered Liam to my niece Karen's care. He will spend the week in Rhode Island, hanging out with my two sweet and energetic grand-nephews. Giving Karen a little break.

Max considers his cousin Liam something of a god who walks the earth. Liam's coming to Boston was a surprise. Here, Liam is showing Max his Charlie card, for the public transit system. Max still can't believe his eyes. They would spend several magic days together, bonding as only boy cousins can.

On Tuesday evening, I gave my talk, "Situational Awareness and the Art of Disappearing," to a small but warm and wonderful crowd at Story Chapel in Mt. Auburn Cemetery. I composed a little poem to Mt. Auburn, and shared some of my photos of its many wonders before launching into the talk. 

I sold lots of books and notecards, and had a wonderful time. I like to end my talks with a song when I can, and the privilege of singing in that space was worth the flight to New England, worth driving in Boston traffic. 

When we came out of Story Chapel, the sky was doing this. 

Look at the light of this hour!

Much more on Mt. Auburn Cemetery's joys to come.

From there, on Wednesday July 22 I hied me to Harvard MA, about an hour west of town, where my dear sister Barbara lives. I gave a talk based on Letters from Eden for the Fruitlands Museum, a Shaker village nestled in the rolling orchard country of Harvard. Man, is it beautiful there. Once again, a small but devoted crowd, a beautiful space, a song, and best of all my two sisters Micky and Barbara there to cheer me up and on.  I don't have a photo of that because I had a show to do, and book signing afterward, and it just didn't happen. Dang it! I took this in the calm before the talk.

The next morning, July 23, I had to be in Topsfield MA at the fairgrounds by 9:30 AM to set up for a talk on bird gardening for the Massachusetts Nursery and Landscapers Association. Three in a row, all different talks, and all fresh and new. If you haven't heard as much from me lately, that's how come.

Another small crowd, great people, gorgeous weather, even a kingbird smacking a redtail circling in the sky overhead. I took a pretty difficult plant ID quiz along with all the professional landscapers and nurserypeople and got a respectable 79, which I'm told is enough to pass my Master Gardener's exam. Whee! I finished up there, and had a three-hour tooth and nail stop and start fight through Boston traffic to get down to Canton by dinnertime, to meet with some artist friends for dinner. Overnight in Canton, and on Friday morning July 24 I met with Amy Montague, Director of the Museum of American Bird Art about mounting an exhibition of my work. 

Hanging there now is a show of Don Eckelberry's paintings. This small museum is making quite a name for itself in the quality and variety of its shows. Amy is just the greatest, so knowledgeable, caring, energetic and a true visionary. I'm honored to be considered for a show there. It's been awhile since I've had one. Stay tuned for next spring!

After meeting with Amy Friday morning, I was leaving the museum grounds when I heard a robin scolding incessently. There was a red-tailed hawk perched smack in front of me in a dead tree. I couldn't have missed him if I'd tried. I know it doesn't look like much more than a white dot in this bad iPhone photo, but trust me. He was there, with a bullet.

Well, we all know that's my Dad visiting on my birthday morning. 

A redtail perches 
a robin cussing him out
The least observant
among us could not miss this.
I'm accompanied
Watched over with love
flown on summer-ragged wings
from the Great Beyond.

Fresh Pond Native Plant Party

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Red Admiral, Sweet William and Queen Anne—all the celebs are making the scene at Fresh Pond Reservation this morning! It’s a quietly riotous party. 

The robust shuttlecocks of purple coneflower ought to be festooned with butterflies by now. Not sure where they all are, but it seems we have more swallowtails and admirals in Ohio right now than I'm seeing in Massachusetts. 

I’m surprised to see Joe-Pye weed already in bloom. It has yet to come out at home, though we’re considerably farther south in latitude. 

Much as I love its wifty plumes and the way it sings with chicory, white soapwort and QAL, I can’t say I was happy to see the first early goldenrod coming into bloom. My associations with goldenrod and autumn are far too strong. I sigh and decide to accept it, if not celebrate the headlong rush toward the end. After all, September and October are among my favorite months.

I’m happy to see the yellow buttons of tansy teaming up with chicory and QUAL for another salute to Sweden. Tansy is a pretty plant, and smells so good when you rub it on your arms. It’s said to repel ants and mosquitoes. We don’t have it in Ohio. Whoops, Googling it on a slight suspicion that it's not native, I find it's considered yet another noxious weed from Eurasia. Gawrsh. All three of these are considered such. 

Sometimes I wonder when we will just lie down and accept that we have a global flora, a global fauna. Even as I fight tooth and nail against Miscanthus grasses and Japanese stiltgrass, wisteria and ailanthus and Japanese honeysuckle, garlic mustard and creeping Charlie. Never, I guess. I freely admit to a bias for the pretty ones. I'm dumb that way.

Hodge and I find four young Canada geese stranded and looking longingly out at Fresh Pond from behind a low chain link fence. The gate is closed and locked or we’d open it for them. A terrier mix, running off lead, rushes in and starts to snap at their tails, totally ignoring the yells of his owner. Hodge and I rush to stop him. Grrrr. Come on, woman, get control of your durn dog. The geese seem unable to fly over the three-foot fence; perhaps they’re in molt. Their wings look fully feathered. Hmm. Perhaps they’re just having an attack of the dumbs.

photo by K.H. Macomber
Follow @khmacomber on Instagram for a daily visual treat!

 I sidle up, stand next to them and make clear pictures in my head of me helping the geese over the fence. I ask their permission to help them. The nearest bird allows me to reach down and grab it with little protest. I hoist it up over the fence and toss it into the air, expecting it to plane down into the water, which is about 3' below the concrete berm on which they stand, gazing out longingly. Then, I figure, I'll quickly toss the other three over the fence to join it. It flies out over the water and immediately doubles back to land with its friends again on the wrong side of the fence. Thank you, but no thank you; I don’t want to go without them. Because there’s no way I can catch and toss all four at once, I give up. We go inside the nearby visitor’s center and Hodge leaves a sticky note for the park ranger, asking that the gate be opened for these poor, seemingly witless birds. Knowing how intelligent Canada geese are, I can’t help but think that there’s something going on here I don’t understand, something to do with the fence height and the fact that the water level is too far below the berm for them to feel comfortable dropping into it. Much as I want to help them, I can't.

I like the little lost mateless shoes. Liam left a trail of those as a babe.

 Thus ends our visit to the spectacular native plant showrooms of Fresh Pond Reservation. Workers and volunteers, I salute you! Thank you for showing us what a moist prairie meadow looks like. We’d almost forgotten.

Fresh Pond Reservation: Native Wildflower Showcase

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Handy by Cambridge in Arlington, MA lies Fresh Pond Reservation, a reservoir of drinking water ringed by a tonsure of forest and flowers. This is just one of myriad places that has changed immensely for the better since I left in 1981. A vigorous effort to restore this place to native vegetation is underway, and on this bright twenty-third morning in July 2015 I am floored by the results.

My first sighting is of a black French bulldog wearing a life jacket, and that kicks the walk off to a charming start. Though his deep chest, short legs and shorter face would normally keep him from being able to swim at all, he is swimming with the big dogs. He seems to know that this is a very special thing, and joy shows all over his face. Mine, too.

Hodge and I walk on to a spectacular show of Bidens cornuta and Daucus carota, tickseed sunflower and Queen Anne’s Lace, respectively. You’re never going to get rid of all the non-natives, and I have to say that they are additive here, the lacy doilies of QAL waving prettily amongst the stouter stems of tickseed sunflower.

A bumblebee snores on a buttonbush inflorescence. Cephalanthus occidentalus (the genus name means "head flower") is a nice wetland native shrub that you don't see all that much. I like to find bumbles before they go to work in the morning, sleeping off their nectar drunk like insect winos.

Ratibida pinnata, or gray-headed sunflower, has charmingly reflexed petals, making the happy pale flowers look like they are blasting off to a distant galaxy.

At this point we are behind a retirement home. I have to think that it’s cheering to look out on this head-high mass of beauty. I’m not sure what they’re feeding these coneflowers, but knowing Cambridge, there’s probably some community composting going on. Wow. They’re well-nourished and thick as thieves.

Same goes for the wild bergamot, Monarda fistulosa. I feel like rolling around in the tangy, turpentiney scent of its leaves. It’s hard to convey the masses of bergamot they’ve planted here. The pale lavender doesn’t carry well in photos.

And the entire field of bergamot:

I play with my iPhone6 and am astonished again and again at the way it handles brilliant sun and shade, somehow managing to strike the correct balance so that shaded flowers in the foreground show up in their true colors, and the brightly lit sky and forest background are treated fairly as well. I remember my frustration with my Canon AE1 film camera. I despaired of capturing any shaded foreground color or detail if I exposed on the clouds and sky, and the sky was burned white if I exposed on a shaded foreground. Somehow the iPhone6 figures it out, and I am forever grateful for that. It seems to see such scenes just as my eye does. To me, who struggled with film cameras for years before digital swooped in and saved me, and then having found the iPhone6 camera to be quantum leaps ahead of any digital camera I've had, this seemingly simple feat is every bit as amazing as putting a man on the moon.

Feral chicory cuddles up to native coneflower. I say you GO, girl. I do not begrudge you a square inch of American soil, if you put on a blue like that. And may I say that the iPhone has captured your blue? Who can do that? Who has ever done that? Only my favorite blue in the world.

Speaking of begrudging space…Silphium perfoliatum is a native prairie plant commonly called cup plant, for the water reservoir made by its perfoliate leaves.  Perfoliate means "punctured by the stem." It is a plant of titanic proportions; these were easily 10’ tall and still growing. I do not think that I would necessarily have chosen to plant it here, where space is a bit limited. 

It’s spectacular, but it seems to me it is taking over. I’ve been offered cup plants by native plant gardeners who’ve found themselves overwhelmed. My rule of thumb as an older, wiser gardener is not to take free plants unless I already want them and know their disposition. Usually, you’re taking extras of something that’s proven itself an invasive thug. Beware the garden club plant giveaway! I’m digging ditch lilies and blue hosta out of my front bed this fall, by gum, making room for things I like better. Like Lucy’s bleeding hearts.

Homage to Sweden—chicory and tickseed. This color combo makes me think of my dear friend Ann from North Dakota, and a certain wedding a few summers back.

Red Admiral, Sweet William and Queen Anne—all the celebs are making the scene at Fresh Pond Reservation this morning! It’s a quietly riotous party.

I recorded these images, and looking at them I can't quite believe I saw all that. The blue sky, the crisp unbelievable colors. But I did, and I had to share them with you.

Phoebe at 19: A Look Back

Sunday, July 19, 2015

I remember when Phoebe's baseball fixation emerged: at a Pirates vs.  Indians game in Cleveland. She just absorbed it like a little sponge, and she wanted more. It was something about seeing baseball live, in a stadium with lots of cheering fans, at night, with the lights. Something set a hook that night, and she'd be forever enthralled. June 29, 2011.

Phoebe had just turned 15 in July 2011 when a mysterious box arrived in the mail. I had just gotten my first iPhone, and didn't really know how to run it. By mistake, I had my camera set to Video. Oops. I couldn't figure out how to get it back to Photo in time, so I made one of my very first videos of her opening the box. From the very beginning, Pirates centerfielder Andrew McCutchen has held a special place in her heart. Her room is full of McCutchen memorabilia to this day. So it seemed only right and proper to get her a signed baseball. Our dear friend Mimi, cousin to the delightful Pirates commentator Greg Brown, engineered it and had it sent to our house!

The backstory on this video is cool. It was so sweet of Greg Brown to send that signed ball to Phoebe, and we were so grateful, that I sent him a thank-you email with a link to the video within. Well, Greg went and found Cutch and showed him this video, and he wrote me back to tell me that Andrew got "just as emotional as Phoebe" when he saw it.

As I'm writing this, the sounds of an Allstar game are coming from the living room.  Phoebe's explaining something to Liam about how players get selected for Allstars games. Something about leagues and standings and I don't know what. She's like a walking baseball encyclopedia, and the rest of us (Bill excepted) can only look things up.

We went to two Pirates games on two successive weekends this July, in honor of Phoebe's 19th birthday. We went because she is home this summer and we sense this may be her last one here. She was adamant that she didn't want to be at PNC Park on her birthday, July 11, though, because if the Pirates happened to lose to the Cardinals on that night of all nights, she might never recover. So we watched the July 11 game at home, and it was a bloody slugfest with a thoroughly nasty and (we can only surmise) legally blind umpire who made not one but TWO hideously wrong calls that robbed the Pirates of any hope of prevailing. I have never, ever seen Phoebe as outraged, furious and inconsolable as she was when that happened. But her beloved Bucs clawed their way back and beat the Cardinals anyway with a walkoff homer by none other than Andrew McCutchen in the fourteenth torturous inning. What a birthday present, delivered well after midnight.  Figures that Cutch would have a hand in Phoebe's best birthday present, twice in a row.

The night of July 12, when the Pirates beat the Cardinals with a line drive by Gregory Polanco, whom we saw play in Charleston WV when he was on the Pirates' farm team. He looked like a baby giraffe then. He doesn't any more. We stayed at PNC on the night of July 12 until the last fan left, just basking in the glory of the win. It was the most fabulous game. Here, the two biggest Pirates fans on the planet share a victory whoop. We drove all the way home on fumes, arriving at 3:40 AM. It was worth every yawn. Plus, we couldn't afford a Pittsburgh hotel. That dough's going straight to Bowdoin.

I have Phoebe to thank for helping me understand what baseball is all about, for modeling sports fandom for someone who truly started out without a clue how to care. I get it, Fee. And I love the Pirates, too, as much as the unwashed can love a sports team. 

Oh, that ball in the 2011 video? Cutch has signed it now three times. I'm sure he enjoys seeing Phoebe grow up as much as we do. Needless to say, he remembers "Miss Phoebe" and gives her a warm greeting and a big smile each time he sees her. Well, who wouldn't?

The other great love in Phoebe's life (besides baseball) was not able to come visit for her birthday as he has the last two years. Sad face. So we felt we had to put on a little extra DOG for her this year. But psst, don't worry, I'm taking her to Boston with me when I give three talks July 21, 22 and 23 (see left sidebar for details).

Chet Baker loves to kiss Phoebe. He kisses her so much sometimes he gets a little carried away and nibbles her. We call it nibble kissing.

Sometimes he gets REALLY carried away and it hurts just a bit! You never know what that dog is going to do!

Mostly, though, he kind of collapses around her now. Resistance is futile.

That little girl has grown up. Hey 19. You're beautiful! Happy birthday! OK! I'm done now!


Tues. July 21, Cambridge : Mount Auburn Cemetery's Story Chapel, 6 pm. "Situational Awareness and the Art of Disappearing"  I'm over the moon to be speaking at this sacred place that saved me over the five years when I had to live in the city. You know, to get that book learnin'. Click here for details.

Weds. July 22, the Town of Harvard: Fruitlands, 7 pm.  Fruitlands Reads Author Lecture, "Letters From Eden" An all-new talk based on the concept of Eden, and gratitude. Click here for details.  

Thurs. July 23. Topsfield Fair, 11:30 am. Down to Earth: Massachusetts Nusery and Landscape Association Annual Conference. "Personal Habitat: The Bird-friendly Backyard," an all-new talk about making your yard an Eden for birds, and for you. Click here for details.

Another Egregious Dog PhotoBomb

Thursday, July 16, 2015


I was going down the side steps to take in laundry when I noticed that all the rain this summer has created an explosion of color in the plantings on the stone steps. These steps, created with hand-hewn native Ohio sandstone from the foundation of a barn that once stood where our house now stands, are a little too widely spaced to be comfortable for navigation. I'm used to traversing them; I run up steps two by two anyway, so they work fine for me. (Are you surprised?) We only had five hand-hewn blocks, and a pretty steep hill to put them in. But they’re pretty darn fabbo for a terraced garden.


For this south-facing site, I choose dry-adapted plants that also give maximum color impact: portulacas, purslanes, catnip “Walker’s Low,” and golden thyme. The staple is ice plant, Carpobrotus edulis, a beachfront  perennial, native to South Africa, that persists and multiplies year in and year out. It's the one with needlelike gray-green leaves and finely cut magenta daisy flowers. I about croaked when I saw it growing wild along Monterey Bay, CA.  I assumed then that it was native, but now understand (thank you, readers!) that it crowds out native plants and is really bad news on the California coast. Here in Ohio, it's well-contained and I like the fact that it's a perennial; that such an exotic-looking creature comes back after the toughest winters. It's easy to propagate by sticking a cutting in moist soil, so I do.

The beauty of ice plant is that rabbits hate it. I've tasted it and see why--very salty-bitter. Not sure why its species moniker is edulis. Purslane (the redder one in the photo above) is also low on the rabbit nom list. Yuck. Now, rabbits eat portulaca like candy. So I interplant portulaca after the ice plant and purslane have taken off, and their yuckiness seems to protect the weaker portulaca from bunnehs. Just to be sure, I sprinkle dried blood over the portulaca until it's established.

So the kids are sitting at the top of the steps discussing some mail-order shoes Phoebe just got, and it makes such a nice summer tableau that I'm shooting away at them before switching to the flowers. Chet Baker always assumes anything that comes in the mail is a present for him. So he's nosing around the wrappings, hinting that he'd like a present, too. It's all very cute.

The kids don't know I'm taking their picture, and that's how I like it best. I have my shutter sound turned off so I can be stealthy. But Chet Baker notices me shooting silently away.

He comes trotting down the hill toward me. Is he doing what I think he's doing?

Yes, he is. He positions himself on the step right in front of me and looks up at the camera. Stares right into the lens, he does.

That was not my best smile. Here is a better one. Now, isn't that a much better picture than you were taking before? With me, Chet Baker, in it?

At this point the kids notice that Chet has bombed yet another photo, and they can't believe he took it upon himself to do it, unbidden. I didn't call him--I didn't say a word to him. He just assumed I wanted him front and center. He looks a little hurt that they're laughing and exclaiming at his hamminess.

But he soon recovers his composure and offers me his trademark noble stare into the distance. They're still laughing. Honey badger don't care.

Bacon, you are something else. Just something else. Thank you for immeasurably improving my photos of kids and flowers.

Any time, Mether. You know that everything's better with Bacon in it.

Hey 19!

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

In this house, kid birthdays are stretched out over days and days. Celebration is something we like to do, especially when we're celebrating such singular beings. For instance, Phoebe's rolling birthday celebration involved two trips to Pittsburgh (two Pittsburgh Pirates' games and a shopping spree for new clothes at a Francesca's outlet), and the day described here.

On Phoebe's actual birthday, she wanted to let it unfold as it would, because she, like her mother, is a creature of the moment. So we woke her up and asked her if she'd like to come into town for a bike ride. Yes! It was a rare sunny day.

Chet Baker has to be there when Phoebe wakes up every morning that she's home, but this time he had on a party hat! And there were streamers floating from the tower!

I do not mind wearing a hat if it is lightweight, has elastic and does not unduly affect my ears. It helps if everyone laughs a lot.

Good morning, Phoebe! Happeh happeh birfday! I will kiss you nineteen times!!
Phoebe: mrrfff

All right. Are we done with the party hats? We're done with the party hats. First yours. 

Next, a clever paw-swipe, and I will destroy mine!
Go ahead. Put a hat on me. Then start the countdown.

Phoebe went out on the deck to feed the birds and found her first birthday present: a black rat snake over 5' long. It disappeared down into the Fak Crack.

Finally we got the bikes thrown in the cars and headed for town.
Liam and I went first to run errands and get his hairs cut.

Bill was setting up a family bike selfie when Liam pressed the shutter.

The bike ride quickly became a crazy tour, led by Bill, of the back alleys of Marietta. He could charge for doing this. Behind him you see one of the historic carriage houses that occupy the back lots of most of Marietta's grander homes. This was where the horses lived.
The skylights tell that this one has been made into a loft apartment.

The pavement in the back alleys is an amazing mix of centuries. It's a pastiche of old brick, ancient pebble-studded concrete, asphalt, potholes and newer patches. I get lost in the textures. Having a mountain bike helps navigate it, as the alleys get pretty hairy in some places. But oh do we love seeing the back side of our streets!

OK. There's the proper family biking portrait. We were excited because our fabulous tour would end at Whit's Frozen Custard down on Second Street. We are being healthy in this picture. 

We didn't get home until 5:30, and then we still had to start the birthday dinner Phoebe had requested, which was Mama's meatloaf, Daddy's mashed tataters, green beans from the garden, and confetti cake with seafoam buttercream icing and fresh flower decorations. 

Oh, and the meatloaf needed to look like Guy Fieri.


The cake was finally cooled and iced at 10:30 pm. I gathered the flowers by flashlight beam, picking the earwigs out of them as I went. Eeew. Nobody wants an earwig in their birthday cake. 
Liam and I decorated the cake.

He got to carry it to her in the dark.

I love the candles with different colored flames. Brava!! Beautiful!
Chet Baker tries to lick the icing.

Phoebe loves her cake.

We loved our day with the kids, every minute of it. You can buy stuff (the clothes she's wearing were part of her present) but what you remember is the hours you've spent together, laughing and goofing off. You remember the Guy Fieri meatloaf head. That's the love, coming through.

Having our girl home for the summer is a dream come true. I absolutely love letting her sleep in as long as she wants, on the days she's not working. I love seeing her wander out into the gardens, cutting flowers for a bouquet. I know that someone's going to snap her up to work for them next summer, and she'll end up in some wonderful place doing wonderful things. But this summer, she's home. That is a gift. Just like her.
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